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What SoundCloud, Bandcamp, and Spotify don't have

We are living in the age of the democratized music industry

John Fahey, early indie
John Fahey, early indie

Dear Hipster:

Given that SoundCloud, Bandcamp, and Spotify make it relatively simple for musicians (myself included) to put their tracks, mixtapes, EPs, and albums out in front of an internet audience, it’s almost as if everyone these days (with the exception of mainstream pop stars) is an indie musician whose music you’ve never heard. If 100 obscure indie musicians are releasing self-produced albums for every one musician dropping an album through conventional channels (i.e. a record label), does that mean the mainstream musicians releasing their albums through labels are actually less mainstream? Would it be more hipster nowadays to pay the man for the right to release your music?

— Uncle Sun (Muteallyourfriends.bandcamp.com)

This is a prime example of how there’s more to this hipster thing than simply being in a pop cultural minority. Grandma Hipster, who was big on etiquette, used to tell me, “It’s not always what you say so much as how you say it.” The hipster cognate to that folksy truism is, “It’s not what always what you do so much as how you do it.”

American guitarist John Fahey is widely regarded as one of the first indie musicians, at least according to the contemporary hipster understanding of an indie musician (to thwart anyone who wants to jump in here and talk about some indie Renaissance minstrel). Fahey founded his own “label,” Takoma Records, and pressed 100 copies of his debut album in 1959. The album was never marketed or sold to the public. Not only did Fahey have to compose and perform all the material, he had to take care of everything from having the vinyl pressed to designing the dust jacket. Fahey really laid the ground work for the tradition of hipster musicians doing everything the hard way, and anyone who doesn’t think that’s hipster AF is being difficult. Along a similar vein, I have an old Jamaican dub record produced by David “Coxsone” Dodd, and the dust jacket is printed on reclaimed cardstock from a case of tea, which I like to think was because the record was pressed by a ragtag bunch of hipsters who did their best with what they had.

In comparison to that, contemporary online album releases aren’t all that hipster because they’re too straightforward. Now, I don’t mean they’re too easy to write and perform. The creative accomplishment of actually putting thought to word and word to deed is not diminished one iota by a change in medium, and someone who puts out a great record on SoundCloud isn’t any less of a musician than somebody who puts out am equally great record on a prestigious label. However, having access to a computer and the iTunes store puts all the tools necessary for a self-released album within relatively easy reach. This is in keeping with the nature of technology generally, which is that it trends downwards in cost and upwards in availability over time, and has done so ever since only the fanciest cavemen in government labs had stone tools. Accordingly, we are living in the age of the democratized music industry.

Of course, that’s probably a good thing because it means more music for the world to enjoy. Capricious gatekeeping by the music industry no longer controls what reaches consumer ears. More participants in the sound market, so to speak, ought to create a more musically competitive space. As an answer to your initial question, I wouldn’t say this revolution reverses the relationship between mainstream musicians and hipster/indie musicians. It’s more like it obliterates that distinction, so if you’re looking for a hipster edge, you’ll need to search further afield.

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John Fahey, early indie
John Fahey, early indie

Dear Hipster:

Given that SoundCloud, Bandcamp, and Spotify make it relatively simple for musicians (myself included) to put their tracks, mixtapes, EPs, and albums out in front of an internet audience, it’s almost as if everyone these days (with the exception of mainstream pop stars) is an indie musician whose music you’ve never heard. If 100 obscure indie musicians are releasing self-produced albums for every one musician dropping an album through conventional channels (i.e. a record label), does that mean the mainstream musicians releasing their albums through labels are actually less mainstream? Would it be more hipster nowadays to pay the man for the right to release your music?

— Uncle Sun (Muteallyourfriends.bandcamp.com)

This is a prime example of how there’s more to this hipster thing than simply being in a pop cultural minority. Grandma Hipster, who was big on etiquette, used to tell me, “It’s not always what you say so much as how you say it.” The hipster cognate to that folksy truism is, “It’s not what always what you do so much as how you do it.”

American guitarist John Fahey is widely regarded as one of the first indie musicians, at least according to the contemporary hipster understanding of an indie musician (to thwart anyone who wants to jump in here and talk about some indie Renaissance minstrel). Fahey founded his own “label,” Takoma Records, and pressed 100 copies of his debut album in 1959. The album was never marketed or sold to the public. Not only did Fahey have to compose and perform all the material, he had to take care of everything from having the vinyl pressed to designing the dust jacket. Fahey really laid the ground work for the tradition of hipster musicians doing everything the hard way, and anyone who doesn’t think that’s hipster AF is being difficult. Along a similar vein, I have an old Jamaican dub record produced by David “Coxsone” Dodd, and the dust jacket is printed on reclaimed cardstock from a case of tea, which I like to think was because the record was pressed by a ragtag bunch of hipsters who did their best with what they had.

In comparison to that, contemporary online album releases aren’t all that hipster because they’re too straightforward. Now, I don’t mean they’re too easy to write and perform. The creative accomplishment of actually putting thought to word and word to deed is not diminished one iota by a change in medium, and someone who puts out a great record on SoundCloud isn’t any less of a musician than somebody who puts out am equally great record on a prestigious label. However, having access to a computer and the iTunes store puts all the tools necessary for a self-released album within relatively easy reach. This is in keeping with the nature of technology generally, which is that it trends downwards in cost and upwards in availability over time, and has done so ever since only the fanciest cavemen in government labs had stone tools. Accordingly, we are living in the age of the democratized music industry.

Of course, that’s probably a good thing because it means more music for the world to enjoy. Capricious gatekeeping by the music industry no longer controls what reaches consumer ears. More participants in the sound market, so to speak, ought to create a more musically competitive space. As an answer to your initial question, I wouldn’t say this revolution reverses the relationship between mainstream musicians and hipster/indie musicians. It’s more like it obliterates that distinction, so if you’re looking for a hipster edge, you’ll need to search further afield.

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